SAN FRANCISCO —
For Christmas 2007, Chris Hansen surprised his divorced parents, buying each of them a Seattle-area home.
Now the San Francisco hedge-fund multimillionaire, who grew up in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, is poised to pull off an even grander gesture: bringing the Sonics back to his hometown.
The NBA’s Board of Governors could vote this week on Hansen’s proposal to buy and move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle under a plan that ultimately would see the team play in a new, $490 million sports-and-entertainment arena in the Sodo District. The board also is considering a competitive bid by a Sacramento investment group to keep the Kings there and build a new arena.
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The NBA must decide if 45-year-old Hansen — who’s been obsessed with owning an NBA team since college — is the real deal.
Interviews with family members, friends, business associates and a rare, in-depth session with Hansen, paint a portrait of a self-made man who has learned from his mistakes, is cool under pressure and grandiose in his generosity.
When the NBA opportunity arose, Hansen quickly assembled an investor group of some of Seattle’s most-famous business magnates. But his story still remains little-known.
Child of the ’60s
Christopher Robert Hansen calls Seattle his hometown even though he was born in San Francisco, where his parents met and married in 1967, the year of the fabled “Summer of Love.” Hansen was born the next year, and his brother, Eric, the year after that.
Hansen described his parents, Peg and Bob, as “hippies” and he recalls fun times camping and playing at the beach. But by the early 1970s they separated, victims of what each described as their strong personalities.
His mother moved with her sons to Seattle and continued her budding career in early-childhood education. In 1974, she met a Seattle actor named Glenn Mazen, a father of two, and in 1978 they married. Over time, they had two daughters of their own.
In 1976, Bob Hansen moved to Seattle to live closer to his boys.
Stepsister Heather Korbmacher, who works for Bellingham Public Schools, credits all the parents for creating a healthy environment that included large family get-togethers for the holidays.
When Chris was in second grade, his mom and stepfather bought a house in the Rainier Valley, wanting their kids to grow up in a diverse neighborhood. The area had its share of crime. Their home was burglarized several times, requiring the installation of bars and an alarm system for a family that lived paycheck-to-paycheck.
Hansen recalls being beat up and his bike being stolen after he first moved there. He said he “hardened up, because you had to.”
He attended Bishop Blanchet, a coed Catholic high school in North Seattle, and he washed dishes part time at Leschi Lake Café. When his parents could no longer afford private tuition for the family, Hansen transferred to Roosevelt High School his senior year. Short, strong and smart, he excelled in the classroom and on the wrestling mat.
Mike Washburn, a longtime friend from Rainier Valley and from school, remembers Hansen as someone who wouldn’t start a fight but who also wouldn’t back down from one. “Chris is tough all the way around,” he said.
After graduating in 1986, Hansen packed up and headed to San Diego State University, leaving behind many memories. But one stands out: June 1, 1979, Hansen sitting in front of a television, cheering as the Seattle Sonics clinch the NBA championship.
The city went wild, he was 11, and a spark was lit.
During college, Hansen scraped by, taking out student loans and working odd jobs such as car detailer and telephone fundraiser. “None of us had a boatload of money,” said Dave Jobs, a construction manager in Seattle who attended Blanchet and lived in San Diego with Hansen.
During his freshman year, Hansen and three others crammed into a cockroach-infested one-bedroom apartment. Hansen juggled it all — studying, helping run his fraternity, parties and playing soccer and basketball for fun.
Steve Rea, who lived with him later at the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity, recalled Hansen constantly talking about Sonics stars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, later saying someday he wanted to own his beloved team. “That was his dream,” Rea said. “But that is like saying you are going to be president.”
Another longtime friend, Will Johnston, won’t ever forget a grueling motorcycle trip from San Diego to Tucson, Ariz., that bonded them for life.
Knowing Johnston was in love with a girl in Arizona, Hansen pulled up on his motorcycle, told his friend to hop on, and they hit the road. But it was winter and they weren’t prepared for the 10-hour trip.
“We got a lot of catcalls from people — two guys on a bike and no helmets … It was freezing,” Johnston said.
Hansen graduated with honors and a finance degree in 1991, and he took a job in Seattle as a financial adviser for American Express Financial Advisors. At that time, Hansen said, he met a down-to-earth woman named Francein who became his wife and the mother of their two children. The couple moved to Los Angeles, where he attended the University of Southern California for his MBA.
In a yearlong class, he and others on a team had to invest $1 million of USC’s scholarship money. His professor, Guilford Babcock, said the class forced Hansen to deal with the intense investment world. The team’s returns were good but fell below their benchmark, Babcock said.
Some students in the class came from modest backgrounds and were operating with a “chip on our shoulder,” said Nirav Parikh, a former USC classmate. “Chris is one of those kids.”
Chris Polos, another MBA classmate and still a close friend, said Hansen hasn’t changed in the years since. “He comes across as shy and cerebral … and just has one of those intense but casual approaches,” Polos said. “He knows how to read people.”
Hansen credits some of his financial success to the street smarts he gathered growing up in a sometimes tough Seattle neighborhood. He said he chose a career in finance because “I was naturally good at math and wheeling and dealing.”
Learning from mistakes
Out of school, Hansen started off carrying his boss’s briefcase and bags. Bo Cheadle, a USC business-school alum and a financial analyst at Montgomery Securities, hired Hansen as his junior analyst in 1996.
Among other industries, Cheadle covered the auto-racing industry for Montgomery; Hansen observed, listened and schlepped his boss’s bags from raceway to raceway, said Marc Cohodes, a former hedge-fund manager who knew them both. Hansen took over Cheadle’s NASCAR account.
But Hansen was still a neophyte in the cutthroat investment world. When he touted Action Performance, a company making small collectible race cars and apparel, Cohodes believed it was a mistake.
“He put some bullish report out, and we said, ‘You can’t write this crap — you’ll be part of this charade if you aren’t careful,’ ” Cohodes said.
At an investment conference, he said he and skeptical investors ambushed Hansen and Action Performance, peppering them with tough questions for which they had few answers. “We were whacking him big-time,” Cohodes said. “It was the moment that transformed him into a skeptic.”
When the company deteriorated quickly, Hansen said, “I went to the clients and management and said, I got this wrong. … I took it on the chin.”
Hansen absorbed the lesson as he became an analyst specializing in marketing and advertising technology for Montgomery, which by then had become Banc of America Securities. As part of his job, he explained to investors and the media how some companies had red flags while others were going to beat their revenue projections.
At a September 2000 conference, Hansen bragged about L90, an online advertising company, saying investors should grab its stock immediately. “They have a great management team,” he said at the time.
But L90 was inflating its earnings and several company officials later were convicted of securities fraud, according to court records and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
He and other analysts were caught off guard by L90 and other companies during the dot-com bubble. “You look back and you think you could have done more homework — we got caught in the hype,” said Hansen, who changed his methods of valuing companies.
While Hansen made a handful of bad calls, not unusual for most analysts, he gained a reputation for being frank while also making good calls.
“He stood out in the industry at that time as being an independent thinker,” which was an unusual trait, said Rick Gerson, who helped hire Hansen in 2001 at Blue Ridge Capital, a New York-based hedge fund.
Hedge funds like Blue Ridge are largely unregulated and cater to rich, financially savvy investors. They combine strategies that can include long-term investments, short selling, currency and interest-rate swaps, and venture capital. They are secretive so others won’t discover their trading strategies.
At Blue Ridge, Hansen disappeared from the public eye. Details of his days there are a mystery. A Times’ search of court and regulatory records in Washington, California and federal agencies did not uncover misconduct by Hansen.
Hansen wouldn’t divulge much about Blue Ridge except to say his boss — well-known hedge-fund founder John Griffin — was a great mentor he tries to emulate.
Hansen worked out of Blue Ridge’s San Francisco office, but he trekked the globe, looking for lucrative investments in India, Asia and Europe.
Tim Schenk, who worked at Blue Ridge, said Hansen was a mentor. “He said, if you invest with bad people … it only takes one screw-up to remember that you were involved with that guy,” Schenk said.
By March 2008, Hansen fulfilled one of his personal goals by founding his own hedge fund, Valiant Capital Management in San Francisco.
Perched on one of the top floors of the Steuart Tower in the Financial District, Valiant employs 30 people. The modern and minimalist office area has floor-to-ceiling glass walls and doors that show panoramic views of San Francisco Bay.
As managing partner, Hansen said, he’s involved in Valiant’s daily operations and still researches companies. Valiant invests long-term in good companies and shorts the stock of bad ones. Short-selling is a tactic to make money when the stock price goes down.
He said his adrenaline kicks in when he digs into a company, discovers it’s fraudulent, shorts the stock, patiently waits for the outfit to self-destruct and cashes in. “It’s fun unearthing frauds,” Hansen said.
The minimum investment in Valiant is $10 million, SEC filings show. Most hedge funds charge a management fee of 2 percent of total assets under management, plus a performance fee of 20 percent of all investment gains.
Valiant manages about $2.8 billion, and its clients include university endowments and foundations. More than half of Valiant’s investments are in companies overseas in countries like India and Brazil. It also invests in public companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google.
Hansen wouldn’t discuss Valiant’s overall returns. Its performance reportedly has been good, but its 2012 fourth quarter was the worst in its five-year history, and this past quarter was poor, too. The bad results coincided with Hansen’s widely publicized play for an NBA team. He tried to calm his investors, saying he hadn’t been distracted, nor would he be if he landed a team.
“Investing, not basketball, is and has always been my calling,” he wrote in a private, year-end report to investors. “I live my job … often to the detriment of more important things in my life (like my family). Investing is what I think about when I wake up, on the drive to work, and just before I drift off to sleep.”
Life’s ups and downs
With the long hours and relentless pressure to reward investors lest they move their millions, many in the financial industry pay a price. For Hansen, it was his first marriage.
“I think he was very focused on his career and it caused family strife, and he traveled a lot — that automatically makes you not a good father and husband,” said Polos, who works at a TV advertising company in New York.
Reflecting on the nine-year marriage, Hansen said he and his wife had personality differences, and that he was a workaholic who often had a “hard time being present.”
They ended the relationship amicably and share child custody. Hansen lives close to his daughter and son. The 2005 divorce filings show his ex-wife receiving $268,000 in alimony and $124,000 in child support each year, plus increases. Most of their assets were divided evenly.
Hansen, who accumulated great wealth while at Blue Ridge and at Valiant, enjoys spending it on his friends and family. He threw himself an extravagant 40th-birthday bash in Las Vegas at a Playboy suite at the Palms Hotel, where several hundred people helped him celebrate.
If friends can’t afford to join the party, Hansen pays their way. He gets pleasure out of watching people enjoy those experiences. “He likes being the orchestrator of a good time,” Polos said.
Hansen met his current wife, Kimberly Airey, of the Washington, D.C., area, while they both were vacationing with friends in Las Vegas in 2005. As their wedding approached, Hansen threw a memorable, weeklong bachelor party on the small Greek island of Mykonos.
“Chris flew some of his friends out and rented a villa, and it was great bonding time,” Polos said.
Perhaps his most generous gifts involve his family. On the day after Christmas in 2007, he and other family members put together a ruse to get Hansen’s father, Bob, to join them on a walk-through of a Bellevue home. Much to Bob’s surprise, he discovered a framed photo of himself and his longtime girlfriend, Robin, in the master bedroom. He opened a card that said, thank you for everything, from all the children, and made it clear the home was a gift.
Even today, Hansen’s father can barely describe the moment without breaking into tears.
Similarly, his mother, Peg, was directed to a home in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood. When she toured it, she noticed a family photo propped on the master bed. She was given a card thanking her from all of them. Together, the two homes cost Hansen almost $1.8 million.
As Peg recalls it: “He gave me this house. It’s the most overwhelming thing that ever happened to me.”
Hansen explained: “Any kid with a humble background that does well would do this. Sharing my financial success with my family is No. 1.”
He, his wife and 2-month-old son live in a $9 million, 8,500-square-foot home in Tiburon, Calif., with sweeping views of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge.
When family members visit, they say they feel like they’re in a glamorous movie. “Your outdoor furniture is nicer than my indoor furniture,” Korbmacher, his stepsister, jokes with him.
A dream rekindled
In November 2010, when Hansen and his kids joined in San Francisco’s celebrations after the Giants won the World Series, he decided to make a serious play to bring the NBA back to Seattle. The celebration reminded him of the Sonics’ 1979 NBA championship and the city’s inability to get a new basketball team after the Sonics moved in 2008.
“No one was kick-starting it,” said Hansen, who began analyzing arena sites and teams for sale.
In early 2011, Hansen, through his friend Irv Grousbeck, a cable-company founder and a co-owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics, was introduced by email to Wally Walker, the former Sonics player and team executive.
Walker had only a “mild, distant register” of Hansen, who in 2008 had made an overture to join an investment group that proposed to renovate KeyArena, where the Sonics played, as part of a last-ditch effort to keep the team in Seattle.
With his own background in the investment world, Walker called someone he knew — Griffin, Hansen’s former boss at Blue Ridge. After Griffin’s favorable recommendation and several phone conversations with Hansen, Walker met him for breakfast in a restaurant at Seattle’s Fairmont Olympic Hotel to discuss Hansen’s vision.
Walker set up a meeting with Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. On June 16, 2011, Hansen, McGinn and a small group met for lunch at the Rainier Club, the 125-year-old private enclave where some of the city’s biggest deals have been cut.
Walker also arranged a meeting at his office in July between Hansen and King County Executive Dow Constantine.
In both meetings, Hansen proposed building an arena with no new taxes. Intrigued, McGinn and Constantine promised to keep Hansen’s effort confidential, which gave Hansen months to quietly buy what he describes as $70 million of properties in Sodo. Publicity could have inflated costs or killed the developing deal.
It wasn’t until December 2011 that The Seattle Times broke the news of Hansen’s groundwork.
Hansen maneuvered Seattle’s political and media terrain by employing some of the city’s top public-relations consultants to push his plans and tailor his message.
In February 2012, McGinn and Constantine unveiled what they called a risk-free proposal from Hansen to build a sports-and-entertainment arena with $290 million provided by private investors and up to $200 million in taxes generated by the arena. But the plan met resistance, mainly from maritime and industry interests.
At the same time, Hansen wanted his investment group to include someone with deep pockets whom the public would recognize not only by name but by wealth.
Through Walker, Hansen met Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, a billionaire long interested in NBA ownership.
Walker also connected Hansen to Erik and Peter Nordstrom, wealthy brothers with large stakes in the Seattle-based department-store chain bearing their name.
By June, Hansen publicly revealed that Ballmer and the Nordstrom brothers were part of his group. Although it wasn’t disclosed how much Hansen or the others planned to invest, the addition of Ballmer, worth an estimated $15 billion, eliminated the need to to look for other investors.
Hansen said he plans to invest far more than the 15 percent thresholdrequired by the NBA to be the majority partner of the team. He also revealed Walker would be a small investor.
Last fall, the city and county councils tentatively signed off on the proposal after Hansen made concessions.
Throughout the negotiations, Hansen was “very forthright” and “very flexible,” said Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess.
It’s unclear how rich Hansen is. To protect the public interest, he is required to maintain his personal wealth at no less than $300 million, and he agreed to have his personal finances and business plan confidentially examined by independent auditors.
In January, Hansen’s group reached an agreement to purchase a majority share of the Sacramento Kings for a reported $341 million, subject to NBA approval. On Friday, the group added $25 million to its offer.
If it all works out
If Hansen prevails, the inevitable question is: What kind of owner will he be?
Polos, the friend since business school, predicted Hansen is “not going to be like Mark Cuban,” the outspoken billionaire entrepreneur who owns the Dallas Mavericks and who stars in the reality show “Shark Tank.”
Hansen would take an active role, though. “I want to make sure this business of basketball is focused on giving back to the community and having the right players,” he said. “I won’t tolerate any less.”
At the same time, Hansen has vowed in a recent letter to his hedge-fund investors that he would give most of his attention to Valiant and let others run the Sonics.
He promised to “hire the best and brightest people I can find, and then just get out of the way.”
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @christinesea.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or email@example.com